By Paul Gardner
So here we go again, another super-climactic final that failed to live up to its billing. It's not that the Inter Milan vs. Bayern Munich game was a poor one -- it wasn't. But this was the high-point of the European season, the two best teams, with a ton of the world’s best players ... surely such an occasion, such an assembly of talent, should produce something exceptional, something sparkling?
It didn't, and the sad thing is that probably no one is seriously disappointed. We've grown used to this by now, it’s happened too often. The question -- "When did you last see a great final?" -- has become an embarrassing one for the soccer fraternity.
Did I enjoy the game? I did, but without the extra surge of excitement that I still feel should be part of the grand occasions.
For long stretches, this game bordered on the dull. Bayern had most of the ball, but couldn’t do much with it. Inter, when it had the ball, looked suddenly and murderously dangerous. The final score of 2-0 to Inter obviously made a mockery of the possession statistics.
So was Inter to blame for the comparative lack of action? Was Inter playing defensively? Oh yes, it was, says Bayern coach Louis van Gaal, definitely, and to make sure his message was understood, van Gaal compared Inter’s tactics with the “attacking style” of Bayern.
Inevitably, we’re being told that Jose Mourinho’s Inter is a throwback to the Inter that won the European title in 1964 and 1965. That team was coached by a Europeanized Argentine, Helenio Herrera, and it employed the notorious catenaccio, which was the mother of all defensive formations -- basically, let the other team have as much of the ball as it likes, defend in numbers, and hit them with quick counterattacks.
The 1960s Inter is being painted as a boring team -- which, I can assure you, it was not. Yes, it used catenaccio, but it had superb players to make it work with skill, even with beauty. It was exciting to watch the Spaniard Luis Suarez so deftly, so instantly, turn defense into attack with his razor-sharp passing to the wingers -- Mario Corso and the speedy Brazilian Jair -- and the deadly finishing of center forward Sandro Mazzola. While Aristide Guarneri, Armando Picchi and Giacinto Facchetti gave defense a quality that it so rarely has, that of a true art.
That Inter team is the only one that has ever impressed me with a "defense-first" policy. Comparing them to Mourinho’s Inter, I’d say that Mourinho is quite a bit less defensive. The key player in the catenaccio was the libero, or sweeper, a new position invented for the tactics used. In the Inter I'm talking of, that role was played superbly by Picchi. But it is clear that Mourinho does not use a sweeper, but prefers Lucio and Walter Samuel to play as twin center backs. He has no Luis Suarez (for those with old enough memories, Suarez did for Inter what the wee Scot Alex James had done in the 1930s for Arsenal); instead there is Wesley Sneijder, playing a much more varied midfield role.
In a way, the possession statistics invite disbelief -- because they measure only ball possession, and not what use was made of it. I think most of the memories of vivid attacking will involve Inter, and not just because of Diego Milito’s two marvelous goals. Bayern had a lot of the ball, for sure, but it was mostly forgettable stuff, a pedestrian type of possession, one that rarely seemed to contain the wit to penetrate the Inter defense. Arjen Robben had his moments, but had trouble making the final move or the final pass. Maybe if Franck Ribery had been on the field, things would have played out differently. As it was, the Inter defenders -- even though they had flurries of confusion and clumsiness -- left goalkeeper Julio Cesar with little real work to do.
The memorable moments were undoubtedly Milito’s goals. Talk about making it look easy! Both were scored on low, hard shots across the goalkeeper -- both were aimed with total accuracy, and I have to repeat something I said earlier about getting used to inferior performances. For it applies to finishing, too. We see so much poor finishing these days, that it is surprising and praiseworthy to find a forward who can, with the smoothest and briefest of movements, shoot accurately under pressure.
One last word on the “typical Italian defensive mentality” charge against Mourinho. Mourinho is not Italian, and not one of his starters on Saturday was Italian.
In a couple of ways, the game turned out to be better than I had feared. For a start, the English referee Howard Webb -- who is not my favorite referee -- had a very good game indeed, coming down hard on physical play, even giving two yellow cards in the first half. His only blemish was to be far too lenient with Bayern's Mark van Bommel, who he should have yellow-carded way before he finally did so in the 78th minute, and should then have given him a second-yellow ejection nine minutes later for a bad foul from behind on Sneijder. But Webb’s refereeing showed that he can rise above the rather permissive standards that he regularly employs in his EPL refereeing.
My thanks, too, to the television director for not overloading the broadcast with constant sideline shots of the two coaches -- something that had seemed likely, given that the media buildup to the game had portrayed it as a personal battle between van Gaal and Mourinho.